A Week in the Life of Cincinnati Bengals Offensive Coordinator Jay Gruden

Dan PompeiNFL ColumnistOctober 31, 2013

The Washington Redskins have reportedly chosen Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden as their next head coach. This piece, originally published in October, breaks down a week in Gruden's NFL life. 

Last week, Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden had one of his most daunting assignments of the season: taking on Rex Ryan's Jets defense. Gruden allowed Bleacher Report exclusive access to chronicle a week in his life.


With the challenge of the NFL's fourth-ranked defense looming, there is little time for Jay Gruden to savor a 27-24 road victory over the Lions. He is in his office before sunup, reviewing game film and preparing for weekly meetings with head coach Marvin Lewis and team owner Mike Brown.

Gruden tells his bosses how encouraged he is with the performance of quarterback Andy Dalton, and he also makes sure they know how pleased he was with how the offensive line stepped up.

A former quarterback who set every significant passing record at Louisville and won four Arena League championships for the Tampa Bay Storm, Gruden takes special interest in the play of his quarterbacks and sits in on all of their meetings. He notes that Dalton, a former second-round pick, has improved on something that may have escaped notice: touch on his passes.

"The more familiar these players get with one another, the more comfortable he is," Gruden says. "You can see him putting balls in windows where he might not have done last year, the year before, because he knows where he is going to be."

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Oct 20, 2013; Detroit, MI, USA; Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden prior to the game against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports
Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

The Bengals staff has a little extra time today because players have been given the day off from meetings. That means Gruden and the offensive staff can dig in on their own meetings to study the Jets run defense.

Over a dinner of steak, pasta and mashed potatoes, Gruden acknowledges that he is trying to watch his weight. "I saw myself on television last week, and I thought it was somebody else who was very big," he says with a laugh. Another night later in the week, dinner will consist of blueberries, strawberries, spinach and protein powder blended in a shake.

Before calling it a day at about 9 p.m., the self-described "blitz freak" dives into Rex Ryan's pressure package.

Gruden gets home in time to unwind a little in front of the television, as he does most nights. Tonight, it's The Voice (he likes Kat) and Castle.


EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - OCTOBER 20:   Head coach Rex Ryan of the New York Jets stands with members of the coaching staff during their game against the New England Patriots at MetLife Stadium on October 20, 2013 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  (Photo by Jef
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

Tuesdays are quiet, long and hard days for NFL coaches. But they are also the days when many games are won and lost.

There is little interaction with players on Tuesdays. Just a lot of tape-watching and exchanging thoughts with other coaches. For Gruden, Tuesday will stretch about 15 hours.

In order to get through days like this one, some coaches will become what Gruden calls "coffee phenoms," guzzling java to keep their focus sharp. Not him, though. One cup in the morning is it. But that doesn't mean he sometimes doesn't feel like dozing off mid-day. "You only have 16 cracks at this, so you have to fight through the doldrums and put forth your best effort," he says.

He will take the occasional energy shot. And he'll chew tobacco while he's watching tape, just to keep his body moving. Cup to mouth, spit. Cup to table.

Sometimes, the cup hitting the table and the rustling of papers is all you hear. So Gruden will also listen to music on his iPod while watching tape. He has quite an eclectic mix playing, from Carrie Underwood to AC/DC, from Air Supply to Bob Dylan.

With musical inspiration, Gruden and his fellow offensive coaches hatch some ideas for the Jets. They notice the Jets have struggled a bit against uptempo offenses, particularly against the Bills and Patriots.

The advantage of moving fast against the Jets is that it can take some of the complexities out of their defense. "Against a no-huddle, they have to get lined up fast," Gruden says. "Hopefully, we'll be able to predict what they are doing a little better."

The Jets have one of the most ambitious defenses in the league, and playing them requires more and better preparation than playing most defenses. Gruden and the Bengals have a bit of an advantage from recently going against the Bills and Ryan protege Mike Pettine. But this is different, in part because the Jets have what Gruden says is "an extraordinary defensive line," and in part because, "Rex is the grandmaster."

So Gruden settles on another coping strategy: giving Dalton more freedom at the line than usual through packaged plays—which gives him the option of two or three plays at the line depending on the defense. Typically, the Bengals will go into a game with maybe 30 percent of their calls as packaged plays. This week, it will be about 80 percent.

"We want to have the ability to give our quarterback the chance to get us out of a bad play into a better play," Gruden says. "It might be overwhelming for some quarterbacks. Luckily our quarterback can handle it. If we had a different quarterback in here, we'd probably be doing some things differently."


Gruden, while coaching in the UFL.
Gruden, while coaching in the UFL.Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Gruden's offense is a democracy, and it is evident this day. "He's very open to input," quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese says. "I'm having the time of my life because of it. Everything you can think of you want to do, you can at least say. He is willing to allow for ideas to be spread and talked about. Not everybody likes to hear all those things. But he's either faking it or enjoying it."

It isn't just the assistant coaches whose input is sought. "He is open to a lot," Dalton says." 'What do you like? What do you not like?'"

This week, practice squad quarterback Greg McElroy is valuable to the team beyond the Geno Smith imitations he does for the Bengals defense during practices. A 2011 Jets draft pick who was cut at the end of training camp this year, McElroy types up a Jets tip sheet for Dalton. During quarterbacks meetings that start today, Gruden picks his brain.

"His insight is helpful," Gruden says. "He has a pulse on their defense, what hurts them."

Temperatures are a bit nippy during practice. Gruden wears two sweatshirts for the first time this year.

Left tackle and team captain Andrew Whitworth talks to Gruden and other coaches during practice and suggests a way to simplify an outside zone run. Whitworth will either go all the way outside to block the widest defender, or he will stay tight and go to the linebacker and then have the fullback block the widest defender. And he will let the fullback know of his intentions with a presnap signal.

Gruden likes the suggestion, and the Bengals install it in the game plan the next day.

"When you've been here eight years and run all the plays there are to run, sometimes you know this works a little better than that, or this adjustment can give us an advantage," Whitworth said. "So it's nice that he's willing to listen and be vulnerable in that respect. It gives each guy a chance to think, 'He trusts me. He believes in me.' It gives you confidence."

After dinner, it's time to focus on the red-zone plan. Gruden sits behind his desk working the remote and laser pointer on the overhead projection screen. Seated at the conference table in his office are Zampese, running backs coach Hue Jackson, tight ends coach Jonathan Hayes, wide receivers coach James Urban and assistant offensive line coach/quality coach Kyle Caskey. About halfway through the meeting, Lewis walks in and takes a seat.

Each coach makes suggestions and comments as the tape rolls. As they do, Gruden writes down notes. After they get through the tape, Gruden asks, "What do you all like?" Each of the assistants offers something. Lewis draws up a play on the grease board.

Lewis, an 11-year head coaching veteran, has a defensive background and is wise enough to give Gruden the freedom to run the offense as he sees fit. But he does monitor the offense and offers input. "He will help a lot this week because of his familiarity with the Jets coaches and their scheme," Gruden says.

As the coaches file out, Gruden puts together the red-zone plan.


CINCINNATI - SEPTEMBER 19:  Holder Kevin Huber #10 of the Cincinatti Bengals congratulates Mike Nugent #2 after his fifth field goal against the Baltimore Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium on September 19, 2010 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  (Photo by Matthew Stockman/
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

During a morning meeting with the offense, Gruden has several messages to deliver. He talks about red-zone concepts. He shows the players some cutups from practice the previous day.

And then an unusual photo flashes on the big screen. It's Bengals wide receiver Marvin Jones, sleeping at the facility. Gruden had snapped the picture the day before when Jones was napping at Paul Brown Stadium during a brief break. The room breaks up.

The message? "Get your rest this week."

"There are times where he makes things light," Dalton says. "He likes to have a good time, even in meetings. He likes to make fun of people, crack jokes."

Gruden laughs easily and doesn't treat a football game like it's an organ transplant. "From the day he walked in, it was fun," Zampese said. "He has a way about him that makes it enjoyable. It takes the tension out of the air."

It isn't difficult to imagine Gruden as a head coach. He has that air about him, and many expect for it to happen sooner rather than later. He has been an NFL offensive coordinator for only three years, but he already has generated considerable interest. After his first year, he turned down interview requests because he felt he was not ready. Earlier this year, he interviewed with the Cardinals, Chargers, Eagles and Jaguars.

Gruden, who was head coach of the Orlando Predators of the Arena League for nine years and won two league titles, believes he is prepared to be an NFL head coach. But he isn't doing anything to climb the ladder now. "I'm just worried about the Jets," he says. "After the season, if interviews come up, I'll try to organize some things and put together some schedules. But really, anybody can put together a schedule. It's about leading men and finding great players and coaches."

The last item on Gruden's list of things to do most days is drawing practice cards for the defense. It is a duty shared between coaches, but it takes Gruden about an hour-and-a-half to complete his part. It isn't his favorite thing to do, so he often puts it off, sometimes until the next morning. He is debating tonight whether to do the cards in the morning or do the cards now. He settles on getting the work done.

He still gets home in time to take his wife Sherry and sons J.J.and Jack (son Joey is away at college) to a bite to eat at Village Tavern, a neighborhood place where they watch some of the Panthers' victory over the Bucs.


Gruden could make an Andy Dalton highlight reel from practice today. The play of the day is a deep post to Brandon Tate. The 60-yard pass hit the receiver in stride over the middle. It was followed by quite a bit of hooting and hollering by the offense.

Gruden and Dalton are hoping for some deep strikes on Sunday as well, and they believe some long completions are there for the taking. The Bengals suspect the Jets will match up Antonio Cromartie against A.J. Green. They also believe any cornerback against Green is a mismatch, including Cromartie.

"We like the matchup," Dalton says at a press conference.

Adds Gruden, "We'll take our shots, and if we hit some of these deep balls, I think that will be the difference in the game, quite frankly. We need big chunks against these guys. It's really hard against a team that's this good against the run, with so many exotic blitzes, to drive 80 yards in 12 plays. You have to get some chunks."

After practice, Gruden continues a Friday tradition by lunching and laughing with kicker Mike Nugent, punter Kevin Huber and long-snapper Clark Harris at the team facility. Today's topic? Twitter. Gruden isn't too familiar with it, and the players are doing a sell job on him.

"I'm afraid if I get on it, someone will rip me for a call, and I'll go looking for them," he says with a laugh.

The game plan is finally completed by the afternoon. The volume is typical for Gruden, about 130 plays. "You want people to feel confident with the game plan walking away from Friday practice," Gruden says. "I think we did a good job of it."

The day ends with Gruden and his wife enjoying a steak dinner at Carlo and Johnny's with linebackers coach Paul Guenther and his wife.


The day begins with a walkthrough practice. Then Gruden does his prep work for his Saturday night meeting with the offense and scripts the first 15 plays.

He is out of the office by 1:45 and goes off to watch son Jack, a Sycamore High School sophomore, go 3-of-3 with three touchdowns passes as the quarterback for the junior varsity team. Looks like it could be a good weekend to be a Gruden.

Bengals QB coach, Ken Zampese.
Bengals QB coach, Ken Zampese.Handout/Getty Images

Once or twice in a typical week, Jay will have a phone conversation with older brother Jon, the ESPN icon. They talk about Jay's game plan, the Bengals' opponent and catch up on each others' lives. They misconnect this week, but there is a text exchange today.

Jay: I'll be glad when we're done with the Jets. Rex is a pain in the ass to prepare for.

Jon: Hey, he's having a tough time with you too. Hang in there.

Jay has spent much of his coaching life in his brother's considerable shadow. He was an assistant on Jon's staff in Tampa for seven years. But they are not the same coach. Jay is not as intense as Jon, who famously rises at 3:17 a.m. every day and rushes in to start watching tape.

"I'm not like my brother," Jay says. "I need my sleep."

When the Bengals reconvene at a Cincinnati hotel Saturday night, Gruden addresses the offense. He shows them a highlight tape of all the deep balls from practice during the week, emphasizing the importance of linemen holding their blocks and receivers competing for the ball.

Then he shows highlights of an old 60 Minutes interview with Tiger Woods in which the golfer talks about sustaining confidence. "What separates the great from the very good?" interviewer Ed Bradley asks. "You're able to repeat it," Woods says. "Again and again and again."


Gruden has a lot of time because kickoff is not until 4:05, so he starts working on planning for the Bengals' Thursday game against the Dolphins. He gets about halfway through the tape and stops because he doesn't want to be thinking about the Dolphins when the Jets are the more immediate concern.

So he watches the week of practice again and makes some notations on his call sheet.

It's a beautiful fall day for football in Cincinnati—perfect, in fact, for the long ball. It doesn't take long for all of Gruden's planning to kick in.

Following his script and calling for a no-huddle offense, he dials up three deep passes in the first 10 plays. The first, for Green, is slightly underthrown and batted away by Cromartie just before it can become seven points. The second, intended for wide receiver Mohamed Sanu, is dropped. The third is also incomplete, as Dalton overthrows Sanu.

But pass interference is called against Cromartie, and the 34-yard gain puts the Bengals on the Jets' 9-yard line and sets up the first of Jones' four touchdown catches on the day. It is clear Jones is not napping today.

The seven-point lead is significant but not as significant as the tone set by that first drive. The Bengals' willingness and confidence to go deep and the uptempo offense takes the stinger out of the Jets defense. There will be no mad-scientist blitzing from Ryan this day.

Jay's brother Jon, during his tenure in Tampa Bay.
Jay's brother Jon, during his tenure in Tampa Bay.Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

"Three deep balls, just to get them off of us," Gruden says. "Let them know we can throw it deep. We thought that's where we had to attack them."

The book on Dalton says he can't throw deep. He doesn't have the arm strength. Just one month ago, there were calls for Lewis to bench him. But since then, Dalton has a 116.1 passer rating.

"His reputation might be changing," Gruden says.

As the seconds tick down in a stunning 49-9 victory, Gruden gives Dalton a handshake and a pat on the shoulder. Dalton (19-of-30, 325 yards, five TDs) has outdueled Jets quarterback Geno Smith just as he had outdueled Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and Tom Brady this season. And Gruden has put on a coaching clinic against one of the league's premier defensive minds.

What is lost on most of those outside the Bengals offices and locker room is that Gruden's offense prevailed more because of mind than muscle. The plan to give Dalton more control of the play call at the line worked beautifully, as he changed up about 20 times. Among the plays he checked to were a nine-yard pass to Dane Sanzenbacher on 3rd-and-5 that kept the first drive alive, a 53-yard completion to Green in the first quarter and a 24-yard completion to Sanu.

"He's got the car keys," Gruden says of Dalton, whose development is a direct reflection of him. "We didn't run too many plays that didn't have a chance because he did such a great job of seeing fronts and coverages and getting us into good plays. He's really good at that."

As Bengals players are filing out into the night in search of a celebration, offensive line coach Paul Alexander sees Gruden walking with a reporter in a quiet hallway. "You can write the book of Revelation now," he yells, with a chortle. "The Messiah has returned."

Dan Pompei, who has covered 26 Super Bowls, writes a weekly NFL column for Bleacher Report.


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